Inventors and engineers are making huge advances these days, as anyone with a smartphone or familiar with 3D printing will tell you. In basic science, however, a creativity crisis is holding back progress against some of the greatest threats to human health and prosperity, says innovation expert Roberta Ness. She talked about the causes and potential solutions to the creativity crisis at TEDMED 2015.
“The problem is that science, as a discipline, has become too cautious,” says Ness, a former dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health and vice president for innovation at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
That caution is fed by competition for funding and commercialization opportunities, which leads scientists to focus too much on quick-hit research with obvious benefits. True breakthroughs, however, often stem from basic research that helps us understand things in different ways, according to Ness.
“These really foundational breakthroughs like germ theory, or even the discovery of DNA, can't be patented, can't be profited from,” Ness says. “If you accomplish these really fundamental breakthroughs, they benefit society and ultimately they spin off hundreds or thousands of new patents.”
Using frame breaks
Breaking through those barriers won’t be easy, because it requires challenging assumptions we don’t even realize we’re making, Ness says. “My very strong belief is that to make real progress in areas such as Alzheimer’s, depression and cancer, which are so devastating, it will take frame breaks, true leaps of thinking.”
To illustrate her point, Ness often challenges audiences to solve a murder mystery.
“Gary and Nancy are lying dead on the floor. Around them is a puddle of water and some shards of broken glass. What happened?” she asks. Most people struggle for answers with so little evidence until she poses another question: “What if I told you … Gary and Nancy are fish?”
That’s what Ness calls “a frame break,” because it challenges a basic assumption that frames our view of the world.